The Everlasting Story of Passover

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, April 7, 2017 / 11 Nisan 5777

Shabbat shalom everyone! I hope you will be able to attend tonight’s services. Ilene Safyan will lead us in song and prayer before taking a couple of months off. 

Summary: Rav D recalls the place books have had in his life, and in particular, one beautiful haggadah that just entered the Kosak collection. Later in this reflection, he meditates on the centrality of the Pesach ritual to our lives and its importance to larger society.

The Everlasting Story

In younger days, I had a more literary bent. That meant I spent far more time with books than I permit myself now. For my first two and a half decades, I imbibed novels. Dostoevsky, Gogol, Thomas Hardy, William Makepeace Thackeray. Joseph Conrad, Chinua Achebe and Robert A. Heinlein. Ursula K. LeGuin, Isaac Babel and Neal Stephenson. Several summers when not at camp, my reading was only interrupted by the city tennis league or pick-up basket ball. The routine was a book a day and hours of sports. It seemed to keep the doctor away.

One school year I found part time work in a bookstore, and learned how to crisply wrap a gift volume. The high school years were also occupied as an editor in chief for OPUS, the student’s art and literary publication.

In university, there was an annual small publisher’s book fair. I landed a three day gig at the fair repping for a tiny printing house which put out books on environmentalism and the culture of certain native peoples. A few such volumes remain in my personal collection. And while New York City didn’t have Powell’s Books, the Strand was a favorite hunting ground for rare treasures and deeply discounted works.

There was even that very short moment when I interviewed with a master book-maker in Seattle for a position as an apprentice in the fading artistry of book binding. His atelier (workshop) smelled of leather vellum and was littered with scraps of thick paper. Mounted to a large wooden table in the center of this crazed space was an ancient binder’s press in which he would place drying books to keep the pages from curling. After a twenty minute interview, he gave me a bone folder, an oblong tool used to score and make creases, told me to consider his offer, and showed me to the door.

I didn’t take the job, but the memory lingers on.

In short, books have occupied a central place in my imagination since the earliest of days. And while their role in society has moved from treasured possession to disposable commodity to virtual e-editions to career-furthering endeavors, in a few quiet corners you can still find people who treat these objects with the awe-filled reverence they deserve.

Perhaps nowhere is that reverence as clear as in the back alleys of Jerusalem where our sacred texts continue to be sold. If Portland seems to have a marijuana dispensary on every corner, Jerusalem has endless bookstores that only sell sifrei kodesh, our holy books. And these volumes don’t look like what you’ll find in a Barnes and Noble or even at Broadway Books. Their pages are gilded, their covers are oxblood or midnight blue. Their titles are embossed in silver or gold lettering. Their frontispiece, or the illustration on the title page, is most often a gate, as though to inform the reader to prepare for a journey.

The voyage promised in those books is reserved for those who’ve mastered Hebrew and the terse, peculiar style of our commentators. Still, the Jewish people has another book that is endlessly recreated and to which everyone is meant to have access. That, of course, is the Passover haggadah.

No single text in all of the world has as many versions, even while the basic story endures. That is appropriate, for we are commanded each year to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt in a language that everyone can understand. The seder itself is a master class in pedagogy, teaching us through all of our senses, so our national textbook on slavery and freedom better show that same variety.

It does. Each year, dozens of new haggadot come to market. While Laura and I met at a Purim party, one of our earliest dates took place at a communal seder. Perhaps that’s why we’ve made a point of adding at least one new haggadah to our collection each year. We have a vegetarian haggadah whimsically entitled “The Liberated Lamb Haggadah.” Grimmer is the spiritual heroism contained in a haggadah that was penned in one of the death camps.

It may well be that freedom–and bondage–mean different things to each of us. Our humanity calls upon us to reflect for ourselves on what those terms means. Yet in polarized times, it becomes harder to see or understand another person’s sense of freedom. If it differs from our own, we might feel threatened, or imagine that their concepts are more callous or less enlightened than our own. The sheer variety of our haggadot remind us that all of our understandings are provisional and incremental. Each year, the Passover seder means something a little different for each of us.

This year, Laura found two new jewels. The one I’d like to share is a facsimile, or printed reproduction of a manuscript that was hand-written in 1737. It has come to be known as the Moravia Haggadah; its color illustrations are based on engravings on “The Amsterdam Haggadah.” I hope these images at the top of your screen, almost three hundred years old, spark some reflections for you.

Most importantly, let me wish you a healthy and happy Pesach,

Rav D